What special indignities are imposed on the narrator in "Battle Royal"? Why does he have difficulty delivering his speech? Why is he reminded that "you've got to know your place at all times"?
The narrator, along with the other African-American boys, is forced to perform a variety of degrading and humiliating tasks for the entertainment of a baying crowd of drunken white men. As well as being forced to watch a sleazy dance routine by an exotic dancer, the boys are made to participate in a so-called "Battle Royal," a blindfolded boxing match.
To add insult to injury, the boys are made to kneel down and pick up coins from a rug. Unknown to them, the rug is electrified, and they are given little jolts of electricity every now and then as they gamely try to grab as many coins as they can. It turns out that the coins are not really coins at all but worthless brass tokens, a pretty apt symbol for how the white men in the audience regard the narrator and the other boys.
After all this, the narrator has to deliver his high school speech to the audience. But this proves to be a very difficult experience for him. As well as being traumatized by the evening's "entertainment," he has to run the gauntlet of facing an audience which isn't prepared to listen to a word he says. It's only when he accidentally says "social equality" instead of "social responsibility" that the crowd starts to notice.
They're not happy about this expression, which sounds dangerously close to "racial equality," something they're not prepared to tolerate. The atmosphere soon turns ugly, but the narrator is thankfully able to restore calm by immediately correcting his mistake.
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